Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Lure of the Local, Pt 2

I hope I remember everything I have to say about Lippard's "Lure of the Local" but I'm sure I'm forgotten. One thing I wanted to think more about was my recent disagreement/philosophical discussion with Julie of i live here:SF and Caliber. Julie recent posted a beautiful photo on Caliber of covered strawberry fields somewhere in Monterey County, probably Watsonville. The photo is lovely and evocative. It was the text that got under my skin:
This past weekend I spent some time down on the Monterey Peninsula. I used to travel to Carmel, Pacific Grove and Monterey fairly often for business. My favorite part of the trip was not the destination, but the getting-there part, driving quietly through what I called Steinbeck Country: Salinas, Castroville, Watsonville. Watching the pink-gold morning light slant across fields of artichokes or Brussels sprouts. Seeing delicate looking helicopters that looked just like overgrown dragonflies hovering over rows of green berry plants. Roadside pickup trucks proclaiming whatever they were selling in neon tempera signs: 7 for $1! 10 for $1!

Overshadowed by their more prestigious, tourist-friendly seaside neighbors, these are the towns where people really do still live close to the land, producing the crops that we have come to take for granted in our local markets.

This is a field of strawberries in the making, protected from the January cold by plastic sheeting.
You can read our back and forth in the comments (I'm greenkozi). Basically, my experience of Castroville, Watsonville, Salinas, etc, is totally different. I am no expert on the area, nor do I live there (obviously, my focus on Oakland should demonstrate that!) But I have a strong affinity with the are: since birth, I've spent a lot of time on the outskirts of Castroville, though in a very very privileged way, in a beach "community" of gated condos. My parents now own a home there, and I visit 3-5 times a year, and even lived there for a few months, driving multiple times a day through the same fields. This house isn't quite in one of the seaside cities Julie mentions (like Carmel or Monterey)- it's an isolated group of about 75 homes, literally in the sand dunes, surrounded by fields. I also lived in Santa Cruz for almost two years.

To me, those fields are both amazing- of course they produce the majority of the US's food supplies, and extremely depressing. The Monterey area is not exactly a natural "bread basket": you can read some short synopses of the water issues in California here, here, and here. Basically, this huge producer of food is made possible by a giant irrigation project, "borrowing" (aka stealing and destroying other environments and ecosystems) water from other places in California and beyond, and threatening underground water tables. I'm not suggesting that this is a "bad" system, as obviously it feeds many many people, only that it is a system to be examined, rather than taken for granted. Every time I drive from almost perpetually drought-ridden Oakland to green green Castroville- crops of artichokes and cabbage and brussel sprouts and strawberries and who knows what else, I think about this, and am disturbed. The fields are almost always green- it's like the theory of crop rotation doesn't figure in. And where Julie is reminded of Steinbeck, I believe because of his writings about Cannery Row and his native Monterey Bay, I'm reminded of Steinbeck too- "Grapes of Wrath" and dust bowls created by overfarming.

Mostly, though, when I drive through this area, I'm reminded of injustices of farming as it stands in California, and in an educated guess, most of the country. I touched on migrants in my last post, but in these green green fields, there's almost always the stooped figures of migrants. I'm impressed that Julie caught a field without them. The buses on the side of the road that take these men and women to the fields at the butt crack of dawn, the portapotties (I believe mandated by law now, due to the hard work of Cesar Chavez and the fights for some sort of rights) are sad reminders to me of the vast injustices that come along with what we eat. Farming, here and elsewhere is about land that small farmers can't afford and being sold to larger and larger farms (I think of coffee plantations in Central America, as well) and about who will work the cheapest for these mega-owners. What we get at the grocery stores, what we'll pay for, is about hard manual labor, by underpaid, underinsured people, often the very people that "citizens" want to kick out of "their country." I eat this food- I'm not innocent- but I'm aware, and reminded of it by evocative, provocative photos. I'm glad that art sparks this kind of unrest in me.

Lippard, like me, has a place- Maine- that she holds dear, and spends much time in (I was actually at the beach yesterday), though it's not her "home." She explains that in Maine, there are tourists, summer people (also called "from away"), locals, and natives. Natives are people who are "true Mainers"- their roots are in Maine, they can count their generations back to 10 or 11, etc. Locals may have worked in the local industry for a decade or so, and be part of the dominant (lower-middle) class. People "from away" may have come to Maine for summers for generations, but they're not locals. They know the area, but they are not "of" the area. They don't know how to survive in the area, financially, weather-wise, etc. And, of course, there's the dreaded, scorned tourist. Lippard, though having spent much of her childhood coming to her house in Maine, and knowing her family history in Maine, is "from away." She will never be a local. I feel the same way about Castroville. It's obvious that I don't know the culture, don't struggle with the local economy, don't live in the neighborhood. But I feel a strong attachment to the land, to the issues, and I would fight for the place. Lippard is moving on the subject of landscape photography:
Despite the fact that landscape photography, as Bright points out, is favored by the apolitical and conservative because it appears to have no content, some of the most sublime images have been used as propaganda... ingrained notions of "high art" are not easily evaded.
She goes on:
Conventional landscape photography tends to overwhelm place with image. It is usually presented in fragments rather than in grounded sequences. Once wrenched from its context, the image, no matter how well intentioned or well researched, floats off into artland... No matter how aesthetically pleasing the results may be, places are boiled down into commodities. The photographer, having "been there," feels she's captured the place, but communicating it is another matter altogether. Cryptic titles and captions, or none at all, further distance the viewer from the subject by transforming it into a non-referential object.
I feel like Lippard just defined my issue with Julie's picture/words. The picture is gorgeous, and totally alienated from its surroundings.

I'm not trying to say anything negative about Julie as an artist. In fact, I think her other work is actually a great definition of local public art that Lippard puts out a call for: "accessible art of any species that cares about, challenges, involves and consults the audience for or which whom it is made, respecting community and environment." Her blog, i live here:SF is a collaboration of her photos and the words of her subjects. She says: "i live here:SF is an open invitation to San Francisco residents to enjoy and participate in, sharing many facets of life in this city with each other and the world at large." Julie invites SF residents to participate and people also come to her with interest in participating. She takes the photo portraits and they provide the text about their story in San Francisco. The project is mutual, local, and challenging. This is art of a native, that involves natives, locals, and people "from away" (though may poke fun at tourists- what can I say, we like to do that here!). This art rings true to me, and I hope Lippard.


Anonymous said...

"of course they produce the majority of the US's food supplies,"

No offense, but...

Not. even. close.

Look into how much produce on US tables comes from S America (no, not BEEF, PRODUCE) and China. And how much fish comes from Canada, and all over asia.

You're aware that far more land in S america is cleared to grow SOY than farm beef right???

just sayin'.....

a chef.